clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

No one knows what’s happening with Trump’s Syria decision

The Pentagon and State Department seem completely blindsided by Trump’s ordered Syria withdrawal.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office at the White House on December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office at the White House on December 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered the complete withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops in Syria — a decision that seemed to surprise everyone, including his own administration.

And neither the Pentagon nor the State Department seems to have any idea what is supposed to happen next.

One senior administration official told me that “US forces will continue the fight against ISIS.” A spokesperson for the State Department didn’t say anything about forces continuing to fight in Syria, and instead directed me to the Pentagon and the White House for answers.

When I asked another senior administration official during a press briefing Wednesday whether US airstrikes or other military operations would still continue in Syria once ground troops leave, the official directed me to the Pentagon.

And when another reporter asked when US troops might return home, the official simply replied: “It’s not that I’m not telling you, it’s that I don’t know, quite frankly.”

In short, this is a clusterfuck. The president made a decision involving America’s troops and the parts of his administration most closely involved in executing that decision have no earthly idea what to do about it.

What’s worse, the White House apparently told no congressional leaders about the decision.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, said after the withdrawal announcement. “I did not know and I think I should have been [notified],” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate Armed Services Committee chief. “I believe that they should have notified probably all of Congress but certainly our committee.”

Who did hear about it? Foreign leaders close to Trump, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And all this comes as top US officials signaled over the last few weeks that America’s military commitment in Syria would continue. “We still have a long way to go” in Syria, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said earlier this month.

This is an entirely separate matter from whether or not Trump should withdraw troops from Syria. That’s a debate currently roiling Washington, with many left- and right-leaning figures stating the decision will only boost Iran and help ISIS, while others say US troops did nothing in the country’s civil war anyway.

What matters here is that, once again, Trump has made a consequential decision with little to no coordination with the rest of his administration. It’s the same way he blindsided the Pentagon by canceling drills with South Korea in June, or when he announced a ban on transgender service members while Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on vacation.

It’s an overused phrase, but it certainly applies here: This is not normal.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.